Monday, June 22, 2009

Open Road

This spring I made a few trips home to Iowa. I decided to drive some different routes through western Illinois and eastern Iowa. In the process, I found a small town in western Illinois I really liked. Main Street is just one block off the old Lincoln Highway. It's a one-way street with bars, restaurants, and offices looking onto the street from curtained plate-glass windows. The names are handpainted on the glass.

While I liked the stark, dry storefronts and the local menus, I think something else attracted me to the town: anonymity. At the restaurant where I ordered an open-faced ham sandwich, they didn't take a credit card. I had to run to the ATM a block and a half west to withdraw cash. When I asked the waitress if she needed to hold on to my license or something, she looked at me, "Just come back." When I drove out of town, there was no receipt with my name or signature on it.

I savored my meal sitting alone at an oversized table against the wall. I exchanged pleasantries with my waitress, but nothing more. I ignored the locals as much as they ignored me. I made up stories about the house for sale along the highway on the way out of town. I imagined the neighbors rumbling away from the bar on Main in their unmufflered truck, and the gossip criss-crossing town. I wondered whether the local pastor of the community church was hoping one day to cast his nets into bigger ponds.

All the stereotypes I was planting alongside the highway as I left town gave me another reason to like the town: It was an escape. This was not my home, not my community. I had no reputation to live up to. These were not my people, not my friends. I had no responsibilities to follow through on. I was whoever I chose to be. I was undefined. That seemed like freedom, that place where I had only possibilities.

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